Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Dag Hammarskjöld's Markings: An Appreciation

At the Goodwill retail thrift store in Delavan yesterday—a place I often find good stuff, especially good books—I found an old hardcover edition of Markings by Dag Hammarskjöld (trans. from the Swedish by Leif Sjöberg and W.H. Auden). (I also found new copies of Zen & Zen Classics, a redaction of R.H. Blyth's multi-volume work edited and with drawings by Frederick Franck; and Thomas Merton's Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.)



(I pause here to add that I think this is a beautifully designed and printed edition of this work. As a book it's been brought back into print several times, but the trade paperback editions most commonly available today do not have the solidity, heft, textured paper, or beautiful typeface used in this early hardcover edition, which I believe to be a later printing of the first edition. I photographed the cover, above, and a few pages from inside the book, below, to make this point more obvious.)

Hammaskjöld was one of those great minds of the first half of the 20th C., thinkers and writers who my parents revered. Growing up, there were always books around by Albert Schweitzer, Albert Einstein, and Hammarskjöld's one famous book, published after his death. Many people of my parents' generation universally knew and admired all of these great men, as much for their social work as their scientific or artistic work. I grew up in a household where this thinking was available to me whenever I sought it out. The first time I read Markings I must have been in my teens; I remember liking it, but mostly intellectually. It was when I re-read it, probably just after college, when I was going through a personal crisis, that Markings first left a deep mark on me: I recognized in it a kindred spirit who was asking the same questions as I, and thus helped shepherd me towards some of my own answers.

Markings is an aphoristic journal, essentially a record of a man's spiritual progress. It contains almost no references to his daily life; it is an inward journal, a record of what he had learned that stayed with him as wisdom. This book remains a classic of 20th C. spiritual literature, appealing to non-religious New Agers and more conventionally religious thinkers alike. Hammarskjöld was a true ecumen. He described his book, which he had written for himself over many years, as a sort of white book concerning my negotiations with myself—and with God.

Dag Hammarskjöld was a Swedish national who spent his career as a public servant, first gaining prominence on the board of the directors of the Bank of Sweden. But he is best known for being a two-term Secretary-General of the United Nations, beginning in 1953. He was a Secretary-General who was widely admired and respected, and he was present for several important historical occasions and crises, which he participated in resolving. He died in 1961, in a plane crash in Africa, on his way to negotiate a cease-fire between UN and regional militia forces.

My family was in India at that time; we often received the news quite late, for example, Time magazine would get to us, sent by family, but months late. I have a young boy's memory of my parents being upset by the death of this man, when the news reached us finally

In re-reading Markings again, what strikes me now, this time, in the wake of my own life's major changes these past few years, is how very Zen-like Hammarskjöld's words can be. In this book, he is engaged with his inner "negotiations" and the outer world is barely mentioned. Death and life, and the wrestling with them to create meaning, are confronted again and again. But he also knew the still, calm center that one arrives at through meditation, through enlightenment experiences, or through contemplative prayer. He writes:

We all have within us a center of stillness surrounded by silence.

One of his short almost-poems in Markings reads:

Tomorrow we shall meet,
Death and I—
And he shall thrust his sword
Into one who is wide awake.


That could stand as a Zen master's death-poem, in the Japanese tradition of a final poem being dictated to one's disciple's from one's death-bed. It contains a warrior's stance, but also a spiritual master's stance. Both are true, in Hammarskjöld, both alive and awake. And in fact, he did die while engaged in his work as a spiritual warrior, journeying to engage in negotiations for peace. In the book, the line appears: In our era, the road to holiness necessarily passes through the world of action. That is a prophet's dictum, or a warrior-saint's.

There are hints in Markings that the writer was a visionary, hints that he may have had oceanic or mystical experience. Opening to a page almost at random, I find:

Now you know. When the worries over your work loosen their grip, then this experience of light, warmth, and power. From without—a sustaining element, like air to the glider or water to the swimmer. An intellectual hesitation which demands proofs and logical demonstration prevents me from "believing"—in this, too. Prevents me from expressing and interpreting this reality in intellectual terms. Yet, through me there flashes this vision of a magnetic field in the soul, created in a timeless present by unknown multitudes, living in holy obedience, whose words and actions are a timeless prayer.

I want to respond to this again, now, and I find I can only paraphrase. Yet this passage, among others, made me feel, during that aforementioned re-read of this book during my own difficult times, connected and less alone in my experiences. I may own a bit of my enduring sanity to Dag, simply because he validated me at a time I needed validation.

I have often opined that, at the core of every spiritual tradition or world organized religion, there originally lay a mystical experience of Union with the Divine. All the rest is local interpretation: we put things into words based on what we know, and often must use analogy or metaphor, or parable, to describe the Union. This is why so much poetic wisdom sounds the same, coming from so many different sources.

Hammarskjöld, who saw the universal in the individually human many times, affirms this insight:

The ultimate experience is the same for all.



He goes on to point out where Meister Eckhart, and the Taoists and Confucianists all same similar things. Elsewhere he re-frames this question as a swipe at the tendency in us, like the Pharisees, that seems to always want to ossify our morals into rigid codes:

Jesus' "lack of moral principles." He sat at table with publicans and sinners, he consorted with harlots. Did he do this to obtain their votes? Or did he think that, perhaps, he could convert them by such "appeasement"? Of was his humanity rich and deep enough to make contact, even in them, with that in human nature which is common to all men, indestructible, and upon which the future has to be built?

I hear so many echoes in this of other wise minds of this past century: Frederick Franck; Thomas Merton; Albert Schwietzer; and many more. No matter what tradition of faith these minds were raised in, they all went past the parochial and achieved the universal, fully human. (Indeed, Franck explicitly discusses this process and goal in many of his books.)

Yet part of Hammarskjöld's complete humanity lies in his encounters, again and again, with the darker aspects of humanity; with the shadow; with pain and suffering. This is strongly reflected in Markings. A few sections pulled out of the book, again at semi-random:

That piece of pagan anthropomorphism: the belief that in order to educate us, God wishes us to suffer. How far from this is the assent to suffering when it strikes us because we have obeyed what we have seen to be God's will.



The pure, simple self at the hour of waking—and the first thing it sees—its grotesque image in the mirror of yesterday.



Pray that your loneliness may spur you into finding something to live for, great enough to die for.


A mere sampling: there are many other such passages, and others even darker, full of doubt and crisis. To be fully human means to live fully in the shadow as well as the light. You cannot strip part of the self and remain whole.

How am I to find the strength to live as a free man, detached from all that was unjust in my past and all that is petty in my person, and so, daily, to forgive myself?

Life will judge me by the measure of the love I myself am capable of, and with patience according to the measure of my honesty in attempting to meet its demands, and with an equity before which the feeble explanations and excuses of self-importance carry no weight whatsoever.


Yet he does not revel in such awareness of his own limits:

Not to brood over my pettiness with masochistic self-disgust, nor to take pride in admitting it—but to recognize it as a threat to my integrity of action, the moment I let it out of my sight.

This is the self-awareness of the spiritual warrior, one who knows both his strengths and limits, and monitors his self not out of obsessive self-regard but as a captain watches her troops. In order to maintain integrity of action, to act out of integrity, in a manner internally consistent with one's ethics and moral compass.

I'll end with one last quote from Markings, one that to me represents both the author's doubts about his purpose, and my own. This is a question I often find myself asking of myself. Hammarskjöld speaks to egoless action here, to right action, in a manner that again reminds me of Zen. He also reminds me of why I write my own journals and notes, and helps me remember the best, most natural way to accomplish that writing: not for glory, but as a way of remembering, and marking, the Way. I am humbled when I read this again, and reminded to keep in check my own tendencies towards spiritual pride and literary ambition, neither of which I really want to feed. I have not chosen to take Hammarskjöld's extreme option of waiting till after my death to let anyone read my writings—although there are a few in that category—yet I do share his urge towards egolessness of expression and away from vanity.

You ask yourself if these notes are not, after all, false to the very Way they are intended to mark.

These notes?—They were signposts you began to set up after you had reached a point where you needed them, a fixed point that was on no account to be lost sight of. And so they have remained. But your life has changed, and now you reckon with possible readers, even, perhaps, hope for them. Still, perhaps it may be of interest to somebody to learn about a path about which the traveler who was committed to it did not wish to speak while he was alive. Perhaps—but only if what you write has an honesty with no trace of vanity or self-regard.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I cannot imagine beginning to write a book like that. That's not true, I have imagined writing a book of . . . what shall we call them? . . . aphorisms will do but I've always stopped myself before I've even started. Partly I think this is because it might stop me including such truths and observations in my poetry but more I think because it smacks of arrogance on my part to assume that I'm wise enough to fill more than a page or two with anything generations to come might want to read.

I'm also jealous of the wealth of literature you had available to you in your formative years. My parents were so absolutely sure that what they had (with the Bible) was the truth there was no room for any other schools of thought on our shelves. That must have been nice for you.

Needless to say I'd never heard of Hammarskjöld before today.

12:40 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

It was a great way to grow up. My parents were pretty much textbook liberal intellectuals, educated in and interested in art, literature, science, and everything else. So I grew up a reader from an early age. (I was always reading a few grades ahead in school, too.) Books were always around. There was usually even a stack of books and magazines in the various bathrooms.

I think everyone has a book of aphorisms in them. They're not all the same length, though, and maybe not all of equal usefulness. I doubt my own aphorism book would much more than a thin chapbook.

Hammarskjold is one of those great minds of the past century that people seem to neglect now. It may just be a matter of his time coming around again. I've been pleased to see more interest in Schweitzer, lately, too. I'm more than happy to pass this stuff along, and to a new generation, the way my parents did for me.

So, glad to introduce you!

2:01 PM  

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